REX NELSON: Rembrandts of the kitchen

Once my family was fully vaccinated in April, I resumed conducting what I call the Delta Food Tour. We start in Little Rock at 8 a.m. and make our way to Clarksdale, Miss., and back. It’s a 12-hour trip that features what I like to call the Delta’s three food groups–pork barbecue, fried catfish and tamales.

I donate these trips to charitable auctions. I was off the road for 13 months due to the pandemic and thus have been trying to catch up, traveling with people who had winning bids last year and those who had winning bids this year. If you’re along for the ride, make sure you come hungry.

During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority and drove weekly to DRA headquarters in Clarksdale, Miss., I would always stop for a sausage biscuit and coffee at the country store in Biscoe, which has been there since 1926. Known as Mack’s IGA (it was Martin’s IGA in my DRA days), the store is a step back in time.

Biscoe, which has a population of only 360 residents, also is the home of my favorite vegetable stand in the summer. On the way to Clarksdale, I would take the Biscoe exit off Interstate 40 and stop at the stand at the intersection of U.S. 70 and Arkansas 33.

In the early days of my Southern Fried blog in July 2009, I wrote: “Many of the tomatoes are picked within walking distance of the stand. After just a couple of days of ripening in my kitchen window at home, they ended up being the best tomatoes I’ve had this summer.

“The cantaloupes are also some of best I’ve had. Just be warned that during this hot period, your car will smell like a cantaloupe for several more days. So be sure you like the smell.”

We begin the tour with coffee in Prairie County, and we usually end it back there with barbecue at Craig’s in DeValls Bluff or fried catfish at Murry’s near Hazen (or both if my guests are still enthusiastic about eating). If I were forced to pick just one barbecue restaurant to visit in the state, it would be Craig’s.

Lawrence Craig, who had learned to cook on boats plying the Mississippi River, joined forces with other members of his family to open Craig Brothers Cafe in 1947. The restaurant has been going strong ever since.

In 1997, Craig’s was among the featured restaurants at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.

On its Southern Barbecue Trail website, the Southern Foodways Alliance says of Craig’s: “Three generations have supplied many satisfied customers with a variety of smoked meats, most notably smoked and sliced pork sandwiches slathered with a sauce made with hints of apple and bell pepper. Their signature sauce was developed over the kitchen table of the Craig family home.”

Robert Craig, Lawrence’s son, said when asked about the sauce: “My mom was just in the kitchen one day, putting a little bit of this and putting a little bit of that together. And my dad said, ‘Well yeah, it tastes all right.’ And so he obviously introduced it to the public, and it has been skyrocketing ever since.”

DeValls Bluff also was the home of Mary Thomas’ Pie Shop. Thomas, who’s no longer alive, sold pies across the highway from Craig’s for more than 30 years. In the 1990s, Lena Rice began selling her own pies at DeValls Bluff. She died in 2005, but Ms. Lena’s Pies is still in business, providing another reason for a road trip.

River towns can be tough places, and DeValls Bluff is no different. Bars were long a fixture in its small downtown. I still smile each time I pass by on U.S. 70 and see the bright green paint at Grasshopper’s and the motto on the sign: “Come grumpy, leave happy.”

Murry’s (the subject of last Saturday’s column) started at DeValls Bluff before moving to its current location. In his 1987 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” John Egerton described a visit to the original Murry’s at DeValls Bluff.

“Olden Murry was just about to open for business,” Egerton wrote. “A fisherman who called himself Catfish John was there with 100 pounds of dressed fresh White River catfish, and soon he and Murry consummated a deal for them. Then the veteran chef heated his fresh oil to just the right temperature, rolled some of Catfish John’s finest fillets in the secret batter and fried them for us.

“The plates he brought to our table were like advertising pictures–the crisp golden fish, long slivers of french fries, a mound of creamy coleslaw, a ring of fresh onion, a length of dill pickle, a pepperoncini pepper, a wedge of lemon, a smoking hot corn cake that looked and tasted like a hushpuppy’s rich first cousin. Everything was artistically arranged, prepared to perfection and delicious. Olden Murry, a Rembrandt of the kitchen, had just completed another masterpiece.”

Olden Murry has been gone for years now, but son-in-law Stanley Young carries on in the kitchen.

Wyndham Wyeth described the scene this way in Arkansas Life magazine a few years ago: “A man pokes his head in the back door of the kitchen wearing a hunter-orange trucker hat and camouflage coveralls, because of course. I don’t quite catch his exchange with Stanley, but he says something to the effect of ‘you wanna see what I’ve got out here?’ and something else about a deer stand, and I get the impression he’s showing off a buck he has just bagged.

“As a former server and bartender, I’m trying to recall a scenario even remotely like the one I’m witnessing now. As a writer, I’m doing a happy dance in my mind and trying my best to commit this whole scene to memory before the images fade because you really can’t make this stuff up.”


Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.